Load management has frustrated NBA, fans and TV partners. But will new rules help?

In recent years, it hasn't been clear whether the NBA fully understood the damage being done to the league and its players by the increasingly fashionable load management.

Teams and players followed “the science.” Anyone who complained too loudly on behalf of fans was dismissed as a grouchy dinosaur who didn't understand the advances in research and data that had been made over the past decade-plus.

It seems like a reckoning has finally come.

When Commissioner Adam Silver stood behind a podium last week to discuss the league's new fight against load management, it was an acknowledgment of the precarious position the league finds itself in with fans and television partners regarding a product that is in has all too often led to problems in recent seasons. The two most important external stakeholders felt slighted during the regular season when a star or stars dropped out.

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NBA Board of Governors approves new star rest policy

“All groups around the league feel like this is ultimately about the fans and that we’ve gone too far,” Silver said. “This is an acknowledgment that it has escaped us a little bit and that, especially when you see young, healthy players resting, I think it becomes perhaps even more of an idea of ​​stature in the league than of absolutely necessary rest, or it's part of the life of an NBA player that you rest on certain days.

“We want to get away from that.”

For Silver it was quite a populist stance. Fans have had the practice of giving healthy players a break for years, gritting their teeth when they bought tickets to a game only to find out shortly before the game started that a high-profile player was taking a break. Although the conversations weren't often public, one might assume that ESPN and TNT executives weren't happy either when those players sat out games they paid billions to broadcast.

Silver has said in the past that load management is a problem for the league, but in February, at the All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, he defended the practice, saying there was “medical data” to help teams do it , their most important thing is to give players a day off here and there.

“This year we will probably break the all-time record for ticket sales,” Silver said at All-Star Weekend. “We will probably have the all-time record for season ticket renewals. So our fans don’t necessarily indicate that they’re that upset with the product that we’re presenting.”

Seven months later he is singing a slightly different tune.

“Everyone is aware that this is a problem,” Silver said after the league's Board of Governors approved a new star rest policy aimed at limiting healthy stars' rest periods for nationally televised games. and it’s a problem for the fans.”

Everyone recognizes that this is a problem at the moment because the landscape in the league seems to be changing quickly. For more than a year, team executives have been developing long-term salary cap strategies based on the assumption that the cap will continue to rise dramatically, especially after the NBA agreed to a new television contract. The NBA's current $24 billion contract with ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery (TNT's parent company) expires at the end of the 2024-25 season.

When the current deal was agreed in 2014, the sheer size came as a shock to many. In conversations in league circles over the past few seasons, there have been estimates that the size of the new deal could triple as live sports become increasingly important to broadcasters trying to maintain viewer attention in the modern content consumption business.

After a while it doesn't feel so safe anymore recent standoff between Charter Communications and Disney, resulting in more than 15 million cable subscribers losing access to ABC, Disney, ESPN and many more networks earlier this month. The issue was resolved, but it was the first real sign that the seemingly limitless influence that ESPN could wield over its distributors was being called into question for the first time. Add to that the collapse of regional sports networks and the shift in viewing habits toward streaming, and there is volatility in the league when it comes to how it can bring its games to a larger audience.

As the NBA now takes several steps to address one of the most scrutinized aspects of its game, it is more out of necessity than revelation. The Board of Governors adopted this new break policy, which states that teams must ensure that star players are available for nationally televised and in-season tournament games and that they maintain a balance between the number of absences of a star player for away and home games must maintain a game, with the preference that such absences occur at home.

The NBA also included a clause in its new collective bargaining agreement that requires players to play at least 65 games to be eligible for MVP and All-NBA honors. This is intended to create an incentive for players, who can trigger contract increases by winning these awards, to appear in as many games as possible.

The introduction of the in-season tournament is another sign that the league knows its regular season needs a boost. If the NBA wants to collect huge sums of money from TV affiliates that aren't as bulletproof as they once were, it can no longer get away with some of the quiet practices the league practiced.

“There is a consensus across the league that we need to get back to that principle that it is an 82-game league. … There's a policy statement: If you're a healthy player in this league, you're expected to play,” Silver said.

That simply hasn't been the case in recent years. Last season, Boston's Jayson Tatum played in 74 games. He was the only first or second team All-NBA player to play at least 70 games. The 15 players who made up the three All-NBA teams played in 1,002 of a possible 1,230 games. In the 2021-22 season, these 15 players appeared in a total of 1,010 games. Additionally, numerous games were missed by other All-Star players who were not All-NBA players.

Many of those games were missed for legitimate injury reasons, but the steps the league has taken this offseason suggest it considers the optics of healthy players missing to be a serious issue. Silver said the league understands that some players need rest so they can be healthy for the playoffs, which is the NBA's most important product. Older players, including LeBron James and Stephen Curry, may need a break so they can rest their bodies for hoped-for deep playoff runs. But the league doesn't want Anthony Davis sitting with the Lakers on the same night as James, or Klay Thompson and Draymond Green sitting right next to Curry in street clothes, which is what the Warriors did.

Sports science has exploded across the league in recent years, and teams have hired more and more people to study how players eat, train, sleep and, yes, rest. The motivation is noble. More than any other league, the NBA has grown in popularity worldwide due to the appeal of its star players. James, Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and many other faces are the main attractions. They are bigger brands than the teams they play for.

To preserve their money-makers and extend their careers, teams have expanded their medical and athletic training staffs to find new and innovative ways to keep their players on the field.

The 82-game season puts an incredible strain on players to chew through their bodies before the league's most important time of the year, the playoffs. Back-to-back home games, three games in four nights, or four in seven games are tiring, not to mention arriving at the hotel at 3 a.m. for a game later that evening. Add to that the absurd workload that so many of the league's players experienced growing up in the unforgiving AAU circuit, and it's a challenge for teams to keep them on the field and on television.

Interestingly, Silver said last week that “the science is frankly inconclusive” about whether load management keeps players healthy in the long run.

“There is no connection,” he said.

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Let's talk about load management: is it a problem? How do we know it works?

But there is no doubt that many teams disagree, otherwise there would be no reason to implement measures like the one passed last week to prevent teams from having either one star in nationally televised games or multiple stars in one game protect. Silver said the NBA is not trying to interfere with teams' game strategies and said the new rules will be applied gradually to give teams time to adjust. He also made it clear that the league could no longer remain idle.

Shortening the season is not an option. That would cost too much money. So it's time to lace up.

“We're trying to deal with some of the most egregious examples,” Silver said. “We are disappointing the fans and our partners.”

Some players, including Curry, have said that the load management trend was introduced and dictated by teams, not players. Silver said last week that there is a belief in some circles that a certain portion of players see it as a status symbol that they are worthy of being rested on a given night. Either way, the league and players have a lot to lose if they don't find a way to reduce the frustration of fans and broadcast partners on this front.

Years ago, the late Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders often spoke of the league missing the bigger picture as load management became fashionable. Saunders believed that in its never-ending pursuit of competitive advantage, the league risked alienating fans and television partners and forgetting that NBA basketball is, first and foremost, an entertainment business.

“There is no doubt that we are a company and part of the problem. In some cases, these (television) partners are representatives of the fans. … Given the size of the audience we reach when we're a network game, don't give your players a rest that night and don't give multiple star players a rest on any night,” Silver said.

As the league negotiates a new television rights deal with traditional broadcasters and also considers options from tech giants like Apple and Amazon, it appears the bigger picture is finally coming into clearer focus. If the league wants to continue maximizing its revenue, the product it sells needs to be headlining as often as possible.

(Photo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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